A little more than a year ago, a NASA flight test article came screaming back from space at more than 18,000 mph, reaching temperatures of nearly 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit before gently splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. At that moment, it became the largest blunt body — a type of reentry vehicle that creates a heat-deflecting shockwave — ever to reenter Earth’s atmosphere.
The Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) launched on Nov. 10, 2022, aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket and successfully demonstrated an inflatable heat shield. Also known as a Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD) aeroshell, this technology could allow larger spacecraft to safely descend through the atmospheres of celestial bodies like Mars, Venus, and even Saturn’s moon, Titan.
“Large-diameter aeroshells allow us to deliver critical support hardware, and potentially even crew, to the surface of planets with atmospheres. This capability is crucial for the nation’s ambition of expanding human and robotic exploration across our solar system,” said Trudy Kortes, director of the Technology Demonstrations Missions (TDM) program within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington.